Twenty Years on San Francisco’s Sixth Street

by Randy Shaw on April 27, 2011

Twenty years ago, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC) began construction of two artist live-work units at Sixth and Minna Streets, under the Sunnyside Hotel. The units were occupied to great public acclaim – the May 7, 1992 San Francisco Chronicle story was titled, “Artists Bring Hope to Seedy Neighborhood” – and were joined by a community space on Sixth to provide “eyes on the street” on that troubled block. THC’s lease for the spaces ends this week, with much of the promise felt in 1991 still unfulfilled. While Sixth Street has improved overall in the past two decades, the southeast corner of Minna has not. And while we did provide affordable housing for low-income artists –including the now nationally known Cynthia Rojas in 1994 – our project did not spawn similar efforts or transform Sixth Street into an arts mecca.

We had great hopes for Sixth Street after the Redevelopment Agency made it a Project Area following the 1989 earthquake. Agency staff loved our strategy of trying to turn the street into a home for low-income artists, and eagerly funded our idea to transform an unused ground-level space below the Sunnyside Hotel at 135 6th Street into two affordable live-work units.

Susan Montana, then the lead city planner for the area, told the Chronicle, “this on Sixth Street is very important because it is well-known that artists stabilize a neighborhood, just by their nature – they’re outwardly involved with the neighborhood.” The Agency also saw great value in our creating a community space on the corner, providing the type of activities that would deter longstanding drug dealing at the site.

Roadblocks to Success

Our project was approved during Bill Rumpf’s tenure as Agency housing chief, but he and other Agnos allies left after Frank Jordan defeated Agnos in the 1991 mayoral election. The Jordan Administration’s Redevelopment Agency lacked the creativity and ambitions of its predecessor, and lacked responsiveness to community concerns.

San Francisco’s economy began declining in 1986, and – like the national and state economy – was even worse by 1992 (a major reason Bill Clinton defeated George Bush that November). The economic hard times discouraged new businesses from opening on Sixth Street, and the street’s economy was at a standstill.

We tried everything to make our community space a success, but our “eyes on the street” could not discourage the same crowd of drug dealers from congregating in front of our office as they had before we opened. The entire stretch of Minna from 6th to the Auburn Hotel was a major problem when we opened, and remains so to this day.

Our community space was used as a tenants’ association meeting place, an evening film venue (we showed politically conscious films like Do the Right Thing and Salvador), and at the request of District Attorney Terrence Hallinan, as a satellite DA’s office. Its final use was as DA Arts, which provided free space to many local artists.

Contrast With Today

We (and I use that term to describe the residents, merchants, and landlords who were all largely in agreement on what the community needed) had a terrible time with the Redevelopment Agency in the nearly fifteen years following the opening of our spaces. And what struck me when I recently attended an event at a police substation being built at 72 6th Street was how much of the Agency’s current actions were opposed by its predecessors.

When we saw ongoing drug dealing and crime killing local businesses and leaving residents feeling unsafe, we urged Redevelopment to fund anti-crime efforts. We specifically urged funding for an Adopt-a-Block program that succeeded in increasing public safety at Turk and Leavenworth Streets.

But the Agency said they were not in the anti-crime business. All they cared about was brick and mortar, which community folks knew could not be the sole solution.

Today, the Agency cares enough about crime to be supporting the creation of the police substation. Better late than never.

Similarly, we felt the Agency should subsidize businesses to locate on 6th Street, even if it meant giving months of free rent. Given the difficult environment, we saw such business attraction strategies as essential.

But until recent years, the Agency did not actively promote or adequately fund a strategy of business attraction. Again, better late than never.

The Big Picture

We always opposed Sixth Street becoming a ghetto for the poor, while the surrounding areas gentrified through condo and hotel construction. But that is largely what occurred. The Agency never built any middle-class housing on Sixth Street, which would have helped local businesses and made the area more attractive for families with kids.

So while Director Fred Blackwell has moved the Agency’s Sixth Street efforts in a much more positive direction, 6th Street is not a place people live who can afford to move elsewhere in the city. The street’s speedway-like traffic was not slowed, there is much business turnover, and public drug dealing is commonplace.

And keep in mind that Sixth Street’s major problems have always been between Market and Minna, and this remains true today. This is a very small geographic area to have accomplished so little after the Agency had spent $80 million by 2002 and surely over $125 million by today.

But most important now is that there appears greater optimism around Sixth Street’s future than at any time since we began building our live-work units with high hopes in May 1991. This positive feeling bodes well for the neighborhood’s future.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

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